Q & A with Rohit Bhargava, author of LIKEONOMICS

By Mark Fortier, Contributor US Daily Review

Mark Fortier: Why is likeability becoming today’s currency more than ever before?

Rohit Bhargava: As the recent furor over Yahoo’s CEO and his “embellished” resume have shown us, people have a new standard for demanding truth from the companies that they interact with and invest in.  Likeability is first and foremost built on unexpected honesty, and every story of corporate dishonesty (and there are plenty) increase the value of likeability as the real currency that can build trust because it requires more honesty to get there.

The world around us just isn’t very believable anymore.  Trust in government hovers at historic lows – with most polls sharing that 9 out of 10 Americans have little or no trust in Congress’ ability to improve the economic situation.  Added to that, big corporations are cast as the bad guys in global protests like the #occupy movement and often deserve their reputations as dishonest entities just out to manipulate us so they can make more money. In a low trust world, the only metric any of us have for believability is a personal connection.

We have already seen that the most human companies like membership warehouse retailer Costco or Canadian yoga apparel fashion brand Lululemon, who can create more personal connections with their customers, are being rewarded with loyalty.  Large brands like Intel, JC Penney, Cisco, Ford and IBM have all launched people-centric multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, all focused on showcasing their human side and the real people behind their organizations.

When you can no longer build trust based on a brand or product alone, the only way to bring make that trust real is through more personal connections with real people. And people respond to each other based on likability.

MF: Why do we make so many decisions based on likeability instead of more rational criteria?

RB: As much as most of us like to believe that we are rational decision makers, plenty of recent research and a slew of bestselling books (Predictably Irrational, Invisible Gorilla, Blink, Sway) all point to new science of decision making that proves we rely far more on our emotions than logic to make decisions.  From the work of renowned neuroscientist Antonio Damasio in studying the behaviours of different parts of the brain, we know conclusively that emotion plays a fundamental role in how we make decisions.  It is only now that we are finally starting to see this knowledge applied to explain why we make the decisions that we make.  How we relate to other people is an emotional process, and likability is a key element of why we choose to do business or build relationships with another person.

The core idea of the book is that there is a likeability gap – which explains the difference between what someone will do for you because they have to and what they do because they want to.  Success or failure depends on your ability to overcome the likeability gap.

MF:  If likeability influences everything, how can we be better at harnessing likeability to our advantage?

RB:  The idea behind Likeonomics is that being more likeable as a person or as an organization ultimately comes down to how well you are able to focus on five key principles: truth, relevance, unselfishness, simplicity and timing.  Getting all five of these elements right means you can demonstrate likeability in a way that will help you to build real and lasting personal relationships and emotional connections with those around you, whether they happen to be colleagues, friends, constituents or customers.

MF:  What is the economic aspect of Likeonomics and what do you think needs to change about how we measure value?

RB:  The idea of likeability is not one that will fit neatly onto a spreadsheet for any company to measure … but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a measurable result that might come from focusing on it.  There is no line on a spreadsheet for innovation either. Or for visionary leadership.  The fact is, the most important qualities when it comes to creating successful organizations often come down to the intangibles of a business.  It is the reason why the original inventor of the idea of Return on Investment (ROI), a man named Jack J. Philips, originally created the idea of ROI to show the value of things like training and internal development programs that didn’t sell any products directly.

ROI is not simply about drawing a direct line between everything you do and whether it sold more products.  Business value encompasses four things, and only one is about selling more.  The other three are fostering innovation, increasing efficiency, and retaining or inspiring employees.  Each of these has a tangible effect on the bottom line, and likeability can span across all four.  Salespeople who can master likeability will sell more often.  Leaders who embrace likeability inspire their teams to achieve more results.  And workers who are more likeable communicate and collaborate more effectively with their peers and customers.

MF:  So is likability a skill, not just a personality trait?

RB:  Likability is indeed a skill.  No one is born being likeable or unlikeable.  More than just looking at why likeability matters for building trust, Likeonomics is meant to offer a real road map on how anyone can use these principles to achieve more likeability and build more personal connections with those around them.

MF:  If likeability is so important, why does it feel like there are so many unlikable CEOs are succeeding today?

RB:  The short answer is, unlikeable CEO’s aren’t succeeding.  One of the biggest topics in the news today has been the evolution of Mark Zuckerburg as a leader within Facebook as the site moves towards IPO.  He is the perfect example of a rough “boy CEO” who was forced to learn new ways to become a more effective leader and relate more directly to his employees.  Today he is rated much more highly by those who interact with him as more confident and more likeable as well.

Every day we see a new story of a C-level executive who loses his or her job – and with social media and the real time ability for people to share experiences with one another, bad deeds don’t stay secret for nearly as long as they once might have.  Back in the 1980s a CEO named Al Dunlap with the nickname of “Chainsaw Al” seemed to delight in firing people and generally just being mean because he could.  He titled his personal memoir “Mean Business.” Leaders like him are no longer seen in a positive light, even with the myopic focus on short term results from Wall Street.  Business itself is changing, and what makes an effective leader is changing with it.  New research shows that doing business with companies that behave ethically is a major motivation for the new generation of millennial customers.  Also, Ethisphere Institute releases their annual list of the World’s Most Ethical Companies, and over the six years they have been creating rankings, the number of companies to meet the criteria has risen each year to 145 companies making the list in 2012.  They found that companies rated as ethnical outperformed the S&P 500 by 30%.  Being the meanest CEO on the block or a purely profit-hungry company just to squeeze out more money for shareholders just isn’t a sustainable business strategy anymore.

MF: In what ways will likeability play a role in this election more than previous ones?

RB:  Likeability of candidates in politics has always mattered.  This may come as a surprise to most of us, but people don’t show up to vote because of a candidate.  Rather, they don’t show up to vote ONLY because of a candidate. If they did, then everyone who ever saw an ad and thought, “I’m voting for that guy” would always show up and do it.  Instead we know that voter turnout in the US remains woefully low.  Even in a national election for President happening later this year, most pollsters optimistically estimate that only about 60% of eligible voters will actually show up to vote.  And that is very optimistic.

Do only 60% of Americans care who will be President?  Of course not. But even when you account for that small percentage of people who may not show up to vote intentionally because they are making some kind of statement, there is still a big gap.  What causes some people to show up, while others stay home?  The easy answer is belief – if I just believe more strongly in my candidate, I will show up to vote, right?  In reality, it is not about belief at all, but about personal connection.  If I had shown up to a rally and shaken my candidates hand, or if I know someone in my friend or family circle who actively supports a candidate and reminds me to vote, I am more likely to do it.  Why?  Because of something called the Likeability Gap.

The “ Likability Gap” is the difference between what someone does because they have to and what they do because they want to.  The election will be decided based on the likeability gap.  It is why grassroots efforts and social media have become so much more important in this election year.  It is why the number of debates planned is steadily increasing.  Americans want more changes to make a personal connection with the candidate they choose to vote for.  Those votes require much more than belief.  They require likeability in order to convert into real action on election day.  Likability will indeed determine the winner of the next election for President.

MF:  What are some of the situations we might find ourselves in when likeability can help us?

RB:  Any situation where you are trying to influence someone else to do something that you want them to do is a situation where likeability can help.  This could be a manager leading a team, or a recent graduate trying to get a new job.  The power of likeability is that is hold a tremendous influence over the personal relationships we are able to build with others.  If you think about it, that is a situation that most of us face many times a day.

MF:  How is social media one important arena where Likeonomics plays out?

RB:  Social media is vital because it offers a much needed way for organizations to connect to their customers in a real and authentic way.  This means they can now have conversations directly with their customers and build relationships based on individual team members.

MF:  Did Occupy Wall Street emerge due to Likeonomics?

RB:  In a sense, yes it did.  The Occupy movement ultimately emerged because in the modern believability crisis – the modern situation where we just don’t trust institutions anymore.  Also, people needed someone to blame for the growing inequality between corporations making money and people losing jobs.  Ultimately, the reason why it took shape so quickly and became such a phenomenon was because most of the targeted companies had no real human connection with their customers or the public.  They were NOT likeable.  When you are disconnected from customers and potential customers, it is easy for you to become a target – and that was what happened.  Also I think it underlies a real trend in terms of what people want.  They want more ethical companies that converse back and forth with, buy from and believe in.

MF: How can Likeonomics help someone land a job?

RB: In 2005 a fascinating study from two researchers at Harvard and Duke studied workplace relationships and asked a group of workers at several companies to fill out a series of surveys about their coworkers.  On those surveys, they essentially creating a ranking system that would categorize people based on two axes – likeability and competence.  Then they surveyed the participants of the study by asking them who they would choose to work with to complete a task at work.  The results of their study showed that when faced with a choice like that, people most often pick people they like to work with instead of selecting those who might be a more logical choice based on their level of skills or competence.  In other words, likeability trumps competence.  In the hiring process, the metric that interviewers are most commonly looking for is based on chemistry instead of skills.  While your skills on paper may get you to the interview stage – it is your likeabiity that will ultimately get you the job.  Skills and a great resume can get your foot in the door, but likeability is what closes the deal.

MF: How can Likeonomics help managers better engage employees?

RB: Recent research from employment firm Towers Perrin has shown that only 1 in 5 employees are “fully engaged” at work.  This dismally low number illustrates a truth about the workplace that anyone who has been stuck in a less than fulfilling desk job already knows … we just don’t tend to be motivated to give our best efforts very often.  Yet if we were, it would completely transform the results we are able to get.  One of the stories I share in Likeonomics is of a manager named Scott DiGiammarino who took a struggling regional office of American Express Financial Advisors from being ranked 173rd in the nation being ranked #1 – and then keeping that #1 spot for 13 out of the next 15 years.  How did he do it?  His secret was using videos to create a deep engagement with his workers so that they believed in the mission of the company and gave him their best efforts personally.  This simple focus allowed him to outperform every other office, not because his people were inherently smarter or better paid … but because they cared more  about doing a great job every day and delivered on that passion.

MF: What’s the first step we can start doing tomorrow to use likability to our advantage?

RB:  The first and most basic principle of Likeonomics is that you need to start with the truth.  The reason Oprah became such a beloved icon to people around the world was because she shared her own personal truth, from being abused as a child to how she struggled with her weight, over and over in a way that few on screen celebrities would.  The easiest way we can start using likeability to our advantage is to find a moment to share an unexpected truth about ourselves.  Truth has a way of breaking down barriers and forging personal connections.  Truth builds trust.

MF: What companies and individuals in the news right now are succeeding or failing due to likeability?

RB: Companies and people who are using the idea of likeability to drive their personal success are all around us.  The meteoric rise of Jeremy Lin and “Linsanity” (and his continued popularity with fans globally despite his reduced playing time) was one example.  Another on the brand side is Chipotle, which consistently rates among the most profitable and well run quick service restaurants, while always maintaining their focus on quality of food and customer service.

All around us are smaller examples on a local level as well.  The restaurant that you visit every week because the staff there knows your name and what you like is an example of Likeonomics.  The real estate agent that you chose to work with because she is part of your community is also an example of Likeonomics.  In a world filled with real time competitors, where many business innovations can be almost immediately copied, the only way to stand out is through personal connection.  In this economy, the process for getting a job is another good example.  Any time someone beats out 100 other applicants for a job, it can’t be based on their inherent skills or qualifications on paper.  A great resume today only gets you past the first gate.  To get hired, you need people to want to work with you.  In other words, you need to be likeable.

On the failing side, a great example today is the story of the merger between Continental Airlines and United Airlines.  In one of the most complicated mergers in recent history (the BusinessWeek article took nearly a page to explain the complexity of unifying the way that both airlines purchased and served coffee), most industry experts would have to declare it a technical success.   After all, flights still took off and there were no catastrophic failures.  Yet in an industry already hurting from a decrease in customer service, United has taken a turn for the worse.

Their staff are in open revolt, declaring at airports that they need to get a “former Continental agent” because they have no idea how to use the new system.  United’s most loyal customers also suffer as upgrades disappear, the website takes a plunge backwards in ease of use and planes get more crowded.  The new CEO of the merged entity, meanwhile, delivers monologues that are broadcast to passengers as they board flights that seem completely disconnected from reality – while employees of the new merged airline share their frustrations from their kiosks.  How could this have been managed differently?

The biggest disconnect is with the truth (the first principle of Likeonomics).  The lovely print ads of fully flat beds on flights don’t match up with the reality of 20 year old planes with limited reclining seats flying 6 hour coast to coast flights.   The CEO talking about the easy experience customers have on the “new and improved” website don’t match with the reality of now having to click through 12 screens to do what used to be done in only 2.

Another clear failure of likeability has to be the many investment firms on Wall Street that have collectively done a terrible job humanizing their industry and roles in the financial ecosystem.  As a result, the only image people envision is the billionaire CEO sitting behind his mahogany desk plotting to make his commission and inflated bonus while real people get downsized.  The sad irony is that there are plenty of hard working and savvy investment professionals that deserve (and earn) the salaries they get – but their stories are hidden.

Rohit Bhargava is SVP of Global Marketing Strategy at Ogilvy and a founding member of the Ogilvy 360 Digital Influence team, the world’s largest team of social media strategists. He is an Adjunct Professor of Global Marketing at Georgetown University and is the author of a previous award-winning book Personality Not Included.  He lives in Washington, DC.

More at www.likeonomics.com .


All opinions expressed on USDR are those of the author and not necessarily those of US Daily Review.

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